The Spenserian sonnet was invented by the famous sixteenth-century poet Edmund Spenser. Spenser was born in either 1552 or 1553 in London, England. Today, he is best known for his epic, allegorical poem The Faerie Queene. This complex, engaging, and the sometimes strange poem is a celebration of the Tudor Dynasty generally and Elizabeth I specifically. It was meant to be twelve books long, although Spenser only managed to publish six during his lifetime. The story follows knights that represent different virtues. This poem is considered to be one of the best ever written in the English language and Spenser ranks among the best poets of all time.
Structure of the Spenserian Sonnet
Although Spenser is best-known for The Faerie Queene, he also wrote numerous sonnets, pioneering a new form that is now synonymous with his name. The sonnets are fourteen lines long, as are all traditional sonnets and are contained within a single block of text. The poems contain three quatrains, as do Shakespearean sonnets, and one final couplet. They follow a rhyme scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. This pattern is comparable to a Shakespearean sonnet and a Petrarchan sonnet although there is a distinct difference in the repetition of the “C” rhyme. The couplets that make up this entire form are its most prominent feature.
Spenser chose to structure the sonnet in this way so that there was less of an emphasis on the problem/solution, question/argument format. Spenser’s sonnets do not necessarily pose and then answer a question, as can be seen in the second example below.
Examples of Spenserian Sonnets
Example #1 Sonnet 75: One day I wrote her name upon the strand by Edmund Spenser
This Spenserian sonnet is one of several that are included in Amoretti, a series of sonnets that are focused on Spenser’s relationship and marriage to Elizabeth Boyle. The volume was published in 1595 and includes in total 89 sonnets and a series of shorter poems known as Anacreontics and Epithalamion. ‘Sonnet 75’ is one of the most popular sonnets in this series.
In it, Spenser uses lyrical language to create a conversation between the speaker and his lover. In the lines he addresses his lover, telling her that because of the nature of their love, it will live on forever. The first lines make use of a memorable image of the speaker writing his beloved’s name in the sand of a beach. As one might expect the tide comes up and washes the name away. He tries multiple times until his lover tells him to stop, there’s no way to make make “a mortal thing” immortal. Take a look at the third quatrain that carries his response:
Not so, quoth I, let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name.
He replies, telling her that mortality is not for her. She is not one of the “baser things” that is going to “die in dust”. She shall “live by fame”. This is a theme that was used by Shakespeare within his Fair Youth Sonnets. The speaker believes that his lover will live forever because they are immortalized in his writing.
A reader can take note of how the rhyme scheme functions in the lines of this poem. It follows the pattern of ABAB BCBC DCDC EE.
Example #2 Sonnet 54: Of this worlds theatre in which we stay by Edmund Spenser
This is another popular poem from Amoretti. In it, Spenser uses the theatre as a way of describing himself as a lover. The speaker is an actor in these lines, playing out different roles for his uninterested beloved. This poem also follows the pattern of the standard Spenserian sonnet and iambic pentameter. Here are the first four lines of the poem:
Of this worlds theatre in which we stay,
My love like the spectator idly sits
Beholding me that all the pageants play,
Disguising diversely my troubled wits.
In these lines, a reader can find the ABAB rhyme scheme and the use of iambic pentameter as a standard metrical pattern. They also set up a metaphor that compares the world to a stage (as in As You Like it by William Shakespeare) and the lover is the spectator. She sits “idly” watching the speaker. He tries to act gladly and sorrowfully, anything to get his lover’s attention. But, she doesn’t seem to care. In the final lines, the speaker suggests that she is a “senseless stone”. The poem ends unhappily with the speaker discouraged.